Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sage Searching, Sage Advice


Last Thursday I copied Rory C. Keel’s article, “Word Count.” Why? He presented information fiction writers need, and did it in a straightforward manner.  

Tonight Google proudly announced over 31,000,000 results for my search on “sage plant.” I’ll bet half of those are ad sites. Or worse—pages of so-called facts backed up with anecdotal reporting instead of hard evidence.

Even more frustrating to me is suffering through the jargon of studies conducted by reputable labs, only to learn important details are missing.

For example a study a decade ago touted sage for increasing memory and concentration. What kind of sage do I need to ingest to turn back the clock on my once-good memory? I could fill an acreage with sage, and never plant the same type twice.

Today in searching for the United States army’s study on sage as a brain booster, I failed. I wanted to know which, if either of the two sage plants in my garden would produce the memory miracle. And I had more questions. What part of the plant do I use—leaves, roots, flowers, stems—what? Then what? Do I make an infusion and drink it instead of my afternoon tea? And what plant parts would go into the infusion? Maybe I need to add its leaves to salads, or garnish plates with its blossoms. I do know the powder I season our Christmas turkey’s stuffing with affects nothing in my head except taste buds. 

If you believe Internet posts though, a specific type of sage can buzz your brain. According to the Urban Dictionary, a type of salvia (sage) is legally available in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. It’s a hallucinogenic, and evidently instructions on how to use it come with the plant. My brain says the badly written article is a hoax. How could anyone who writes so pathetically understand “how to use it” written instructions?

For about $10.00 at you can purchase a plant called white sage that the USDA endorsed for its medicinal qualities.  Surely instructions somewhere advise an eczema sufferer how to relieve their rash with it. Maybe the information on how to use the herb for treatment of acne at would work. That site also suggests a link between sage oil and word retention. But it sounds like ingesting sage oil could be worse than smoking the plant's leaves.

Undoubtedly writers scramble for words at times. Once again, my research did not produce facts I’d hoped to find. Memory boosting aside, all was not lost. The Growers Exchange advertises a pineapple sage. “Pineapple Sage makes a wonderfully light sweet ingredient. The flowers look like Honeysuckle and are lovely in salads and fresh fruit dishes.” Another site suggested the blossoms add a novel culinary touch when frozen in ice cubes.

Now that's a tidbit of information worth filing, especially for writers. If you can spare the words, add interest to a character who grows pineapple sage for the sole purpose of impressing her guests with water or lemonade enhanced with its flowers. 

H-m-m -- Rory C. Keel gave you a list of standard word counts to guide you. Here's more sage advice. Roam the Internet's rabbit trails to discover unusual bits and pieces that enliven your prose and make your words count.

(c) 2013, Bernice W. Simpson 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Rory C. Keel: Working for You

Rory C. Keel did the research for writers who need a target length for a particular project. His article, Word Count, published on The Wordsmith Six's blog, gives statistics fiction writers should be aware of. The list taped to our computers can remind us to write tight.
Mr. Keel is a member and past president of Panhandle Professional Writers. Learn more about him at
 Word Count
Rory C. Keel
As writers, it’s easy to become absorbed in our writing. We are the defenders of our plot and characters, sometimes to a fault. We create new worlds and imaginary realms where the impossible becomes possible, where truth and justice prevail and love conquers all.
But then there’s reality.
When we pitch our project to an agent or publisher one of the first questions asked is, “What is the word count?” As the writer it may not matter, after all, it’s the story that counts, right? However in publishing it means Money.
It is estimated that for every 10,000 words over the stated guideline of a publisher, it could equate to a ten percent increase in publishing costs.
While researching word counts for my writing projects, I have found the following basic word counts to be a standard measure in the industry.
Chapter book (6-8 yr.) 5-25,000 words
Middle reader (8-12 yr.) 25-40,000 words
Young adult (12-18 yr.) 40-75,000 words
Novelette 7,500-20,000 words
Novella 20-30,000 words
Short Contemporary 50,000-60,000 words
Long Contemporary 70,000-80,000 words
Short Historical/ Mainstream 90,000-100,000 words
Romance novel 90,000-100,000 words
Long Historical/Mainstream 108,000-120,000
Remember, these are averages and the submission guidelines for your particular agent or publisher should be the final say.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

No Snow Job


Residents of Amarillo, Texas want moisture. We'd prefer a gentle soaking rain, but we'll even rejoice if it snows on Easter morning. How much do we want? A friend said "we'll praise the Good Lord for whatever He sends us."

A Canadian by birth, I was tempted to repeat the old adage "be careful what you wish for." The next day my brother Bill, sent me this reminder of Winnipeg, Manitoba's snowstorm of the century.

He said in his email: "Bernice, you were in Texas, so you missed this storm."

As I continued to read, I realized, despite the dry Texas air, there's nothing I miss about Manitoba's winters.

All these years in Texas, I've laughed about letting kids off school on "snow days." Growing up, I'd never heard of such nonsense. But the storm of March, 1966 shut down schools, and nearly the entire city. Driving snowmobiles (and those vehicles were not numerous back then) the police pulled toboggans behind them to transport doctors to emergencies.

When the snow stopped, youngsters, who could get out of their homes, reveled in the snow, sliding down the drifts, pelting each other with snowballs, and playing until their mittens were soaked or they were exhausted. The next week, "kids had fun climbing up the snow banks onto the roofs of the school (it shows this in the pictures.)"

Even as the sun shone, the infirm, the elderly, and single mothers with young children rang emergency numbers for help. My brother, with friends and shovels loaded in his car that had been parked near a main street, went to a dozen homes with supplies from emergency centers. In most cases, their first job at the addresses was to shovel the drifts from doors that could not be pushed open from the inside.

My favorite anecdote from Bill's account was his telling about his car accident. "A week later using my car for work," he writes, "I moved over to let another car go by in the single lane on the street, and moved into a snow bank. Unfortunately there was still a car underneath all that snow."

People are more important than cars. I'm glad Bill had something solid under his wheels.

Bill said more in his email, and expressed it with more eloquence and greater emotion than my second-hand job does. But since I wanted to let my readers see a newscast without my infringing on their copyright, I had to give you a heads up before presenting this link.




Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Artful Fast Track


You’d like to crank up your creativity, right? So would I. And that’s why my blog on writing is a day late. I've spent hours reading. Searches: “Creativity” AND …

Affirmations, biofeedback, brain games, day dreams, emotions, guided imagery, hypnotism, intuitive training, meditation, mind exercises, mind science, mindfulness, self talk, visualization. I watched videos of “experts.” I checked credentials, clicked on “related links,” and made pages of notes.

Affirmations or self talk (click here to read my weblog on the subject) help you maintain a positive mindset. Don’t expect them to turn you into a Leonardo da Vinci, but they can protect you from a hard landing if you hit a slump.

“Hypnotism works.” So state the ads and the outdoor business sign of a local hypnotist. I know of people who quit smoking after one session with a hypnotist. Recently, I tried it for pain management. Despite no insurance coverage to defray the expense, I had considered my choice a better route than pain pills. Results: thumbs down for me, but it could work for someone else. If I ever have a few extra C-notes, I’d love to learn first-hand about how well hypnotism raises my level of creativity.

Susan Gold ( “enjoys using hypnotherapy to help writers reach their potential and to achieve their goals.” I found her “Using Guided Imagery to Overcome Creative Blocks” interesting, but doubt I’ll check her site again.

A practicing Christian, I have reservations about Ms Gold’s use of Tarot cards to help writers discover inspiration—even if it works. In 1980-something, I read Constance Cumbey’s book, The Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow,” a commentary on the New Age Movement and its practices. I've never seen a set of those cards, but prefer to avoid the tools used by tricky fortune tellers.

Along the same vein, I’m wary of growing my creative output by having conversations with imaginary animals in an envisioned forest. That is another problem solving technique Constance Cumbey railed against. Today I found it suggested in an article on how to increase intuitive/creative thought.

Mrs. Cumbey threw the baby out with the bathwater when she nixed the value of everything from simple daydreams to hypnotism. I believe guided imagery, mindfulness, visualization, and related subjects deserve investigation, for learning relaxation skills, if nothing else. Constant stress and productivity are not good partners.

Studies cited on the internet, however, deserve your skepticism. When writers with impressive degrees and high-sounding credentials quote promising statistics, look around their websites. What are they selling? Are the books offering you a stellar future truthful?

I searched. Some websites do tell the truth. We didn't become who we are in a blink. Certain mind exercises can help accelerate our creative growth. Growth is change. Therefore, there is no super charge for our creativity, because change takes time. 

© 2013, Bernice W. Simpson  

Thursday, March 21, 2013

PPW's Scrapbook Memories

Yellowed newspaper clippings, newsletters, photographs, and more, trace two decades of Panhandle Professional Writers' history. Thanks to Nancy Rantella, Jim and Ellen Richardson's daughter, they will soon be available for all to view.

The group, founded in 1920, and known as PPW, was named Panhandle Pen Women. In the late 1980s the name changed to Panhandle Professional Writers, but not because all members were suddenly published. As former "men only" clubs opened their membership to women, the writers wanted to admit men into the organization, but keep the initials, PPW.

Quaint. That word struck me when I looked at an announcement produced on a Mimeograph machine. The membership directory (55 members in 1981) and copies of numerous documents were typed in Courier 10 or 12, the primary choices of the day. Colored photographs taken in the 1970s have lost their brightness, but I was surprised at the color retention in two Polaroid photographs taken in May, 1981.

By 1990 membership had grown to 107--nearly double of 1980, and its directory sported an updated look with a card cover bearing an illustration by Lillian Terrill. The newsletter, once a typewritten sheet of announcements, became The PPW Window, and, thanks to the computer, it looked professionally done in the 90s.

Probably what will pique the interest of older PPW members are first the pictures, and then the writing or artwork of past and present members. Do you remember Jodi Thomas and Ivon Cecil when they looked like teenagers? Were you acquainted with Sarah Allman, Doris Crandall, Ellen Richardson, and Juanita Roberts? They, along with members still paying dues today--Helen Leuke, Harry Haines, and others are all part of the recently found archives.

Pages from the 1970s. That will the subject of a future blog. 


Monday, March 18, 2013

When All's Said


Speakers tend to collect quotations. It’s a sign of respect when quoting someone, to state where you heard or read a person’s comments. In the political arena, this courtesy is violated so often, an entire industry devotes itself to fact-checking. Too often fact checkers report a quotation was taken out of context, or twisted into what amounts to a lie, or actually is a lie. It’s so common that we hear people confess with the euphemism, “I misspoke.”

Don’t assume an audience, jaded by their knowledge of speakers’ deliberate lies and half-truths, will believe you. Offer proof. If practical, hold up a book, state its title and show marked pages when you quote an author. Offer handouts with citations listed. For references on creating a citations handout, type bibliography or citations in a search box. The Purdue Owl (Online Writing Lab) is good, but you’ll find so many choices, it’s dizzying.

Your handout, properly done, will not only add to your credibility, but also to your professionalism.

It’s impolite to bore your audience with lengthy quotations. Paraphrase. If compelled to quote a long passage word for word, include that in your handout. But be aware of the “fair use” clause in copyright laws. Crediting an author does not give you the right to copy and distribute their work with abandon.

In presenting material, talk. That’s what a presenter does. Use visuals only as necessary. For example,  the use of illustrations in a discussion of historic architecture would be appropriate, and perhaps the only way to clarify a point,.

If you must say it in pictures, make sure you have the right to use another’s artwork or photography. Look for “exceptions” on websites that offer free use of artwork. “Free” might apply to non-commercial use only. Think about it. You did not receive compensation for a speech, but gave the presentation in an effort to build your reputation as a speaker. Isn't that advertising? Isn't that commercial?

Think about this: you worked hard to prepare a presentation, and you engaged your audience. You fulfilled your purpose to teach, entertain, or inspire them. In crediting others for their artistic work, you've gained a reputation for integrity.
When all’s said, members of your once-jaded audience will respect you and recommend you to their associates. You'll discover the best quotations to collect: customer's endorsements.

(c) 2013, Bernice W. Simpson

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Fisherman's Wife - A Review

Lent is an appropriate time to slow down and reflect on the story of Jesus. This year I decided to turn from text-like studies and relax with a Christian novel. For me, the obvious choice was Dianne G. Sagan’s The Fisherman’s Wife.

The chapters are short, ideal for tucking one or two between morning devotionals and the start of my workday.

That was my plan, but before I knew it, I’d turned about fifty pages, and later, with a few chores complete, I reheated my coffee and read the book through its Afterword.

The storyline mixes the well-known Biblical account of Jesus, his ministry, crucifixion and resurrection with a fictional version. Perhaps vision is a better word than version. Ms Sagan’s vision of Biblical times delves into the day-to-day lives of people who knew Jesus of Nazareth.

We meet Johanna, who with her mother, listen to a conversation between her father and a friend. The two men who haggle over Johanna’s dowry don’t consider love as a factor. Custom does not permit interference from Johanna when her father holds firm to the bride price the other man says is too high. Within a short time, Johanna’s emotions jump from despair at the thought of not sharing her life with the man she loves to ecstasy. Johanna and Simon will marry in a year.

Celebration defines the mood of the next several chapters except for a reminder of the times. The Jewish people are controlled by King Herod, a puppet to Rome. The ever-present Roman soldiers, even when unseen, cast a pall on the inhabitants of Capernaum.

Despite Roman occupation, these God-centered people continue their religious culture, as well as customs passed down through generations. Curiosity about those customs may be what initially keeps the reader turning pages.

It is obvious that Ms. Sagan has thoroughly researched her material. We join the wedding preparations and celebration. Later, we walk with Johanna, her sister and mother to the market who, like shoppers today make purchases, and also admire goods displayed for wealthy patrons. As we see women carry on with their daily responsibilities, we identify with these hard-working, faithful women. Although they lived in another era, human emotions remain the same.

Deeper into the story, we understand their fear of the Roman soldiers who will crucify a dozen innocent men in retribution for one act done against them. They will kill an entire family for the suspected misdeed of one member or one member’s friend.

Johanna had witnessed their cruelty first hand. But seeing their gruesome acts was only one of Johanna’s nightmares.

As years pass, Johanna a once-joyful bride grows sullen. Will she ever know peace again? Shamed by birthing still-born children, how will she pull her marriage back together? How will Simon provide for his family if he continues to experience a poor fishing season? What will happen to Simon if the Roman’s arrest him for associating with Jesus, a man they call a zealot? How will she survive?

The Fisherman’s Wife is an excellent commentary on the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, as well as a story of imperfect people whose faith wanes and swells, and eventually sustains them.

Dianne is presently working on a third in her series about women in biblical times. Learn more about Dianne and her writing at and

(c) 2013, Bernice W. Simpson

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Pocket-Sized Tutorials


In How to Get Happily Published, Judith Applebaum says, "[good writers] are apt to go through several books and magazines a month and pick up pointers on style, organization, point of view and the like…." The how-to of gleaning those pointers is the subject of Francine Prose's acclaimed text, Reading Like a Writer. Following her guidance, you can expect to achieve writing excellence. It sounds good, except she advises that you immediately read more than 100 titles. Unfortunately, at the "close reading" (therefore, s-l-o-w) pace she recommends, the glaciers would melt before you digested half the list.

To read like a writer makes sense, but if time constraints prevent your analyzing a library of classics, consider reading like a writer – on the run.

First, assemble study materials – an assortment of used books, magazines, and newspapers. Used? Yes, and cheap, so you'll feel free to mark pages with abandon. Next, choose any book, and pull it apart into sections, or tear an article or two from a publication. Fold the pages to purse or pocket size, and you're ready to turn spare moments into writing lessons. As time avails, read, all the while marking words and passages that reinforce past learning, or teach you something new.

  • Circle strong verbs, and unfamiliar words, as well as particularly descriptive words or phrases.
  • Print "R"in the margin beside passages that indicate the author researched the subject, or conversely, "R?" where you question material presented as fact.
  • In nonfiction articles, notice quotations and their purpose. For example, does the author use a quotation to reinforce a stated opinion? Write "Q" beside all passages that contain quoted material, both direct and indirect. Hopefully, you'll find time to analyze them later.
  • Similarly, put an "A" beside each anecdote. Notice how the author leads into it. Like quotations, anecdotes can be used for a variety of functions. For example, one anecdote may support the author's point of view and/or work as a transitional paragraph, while another is simply included for interest.
  • To study mechanics, highlight all punctuation marks on page. Do you agree with how they were used?
  • Beef up your spelling. Redline words that represent your spelling demons.For example, are you troubled by the suffixes -er and -or? If hyphenation gives you grief, observe words formed with prefixes. In no time you'll imbibe the correct spelling of nouns like afterthought compared to compound adjectives, as in the phrase "after-dinner speech."
  • Examine dialogue, underlining each character's words in a separate color. How does the author create different voices?
  • Put a smiley face by smooth transitions between paragraphs, end of chapter zingers, an author's segues from the present to background material and back to the present, and so forth.
  • Ask yourself questions, and scribble brief answers. What held your interest… or lost it? In How to Get Happily Published, Judith Applebaum says "writers often stop to examine each powerful passage…to figure out how it achieved its impact." She suggests three techniques to watch for: "a succession of startling images, a change of tense, a panoply of facts."
After you've squeezed all the good you can from one piece, file it and select another. When you read with purpose, you can turn poems or prose – from lengthy novels to brief advertisements – into teaching tools. It's simply a matter of observation, curiosity about writing technique, and a desire to improve your own work.

(c) 2013, Bernice W. Simpson

Friday, March 1, 2013

Life Katas -- by Diane Mowery

My daughter, Sarah, takes karate and will soon be awarded her brown belt. In the process she has learned over twenty katas. A kata is a pattern of defensive and offensive moves memorized and practiced in sequence. Watching katas is like watching military moves choreographed into dance. I see how katas are useful for learning karate, but I wondered how useful they are in real combat, especially when an opponent cares nothing about karate.

Sarah’s instructor is also a police officer, so I asked him:  “How useful are the katas to you when you are on the street in hand to hand combat with a criminal? You could hardly follow a whole sequence through, so how does it help you?”

“Oh, it’s everything when in combat. Because my mind and body are trained in katas I don’t have to think about what to do next. My body goes into each move that is needed and adjusts to my opponent’s moves without making a conscious decision. My response to an opponent is quicker and more effective than if I had to think about each move I make.”

I began to think of ways I respond without making a conscious decision. What patterns of mind and body have I established in everyday living and is each life kata helpful or harmful? When the opponent of temptation comes, have I trained my mind to make good choices?

Before I became a Christian I had patterns established that were based on selfish desires. The patterns of the old self carried into my new life in Christ. One of these was drawing attention to myself by flirting. I kept falling into this old pattern. One day I asked God why this was such a problem for me. I got my answer when I walked past a television playing one of my favorite shows. There was the pattern, a televised kata of seduction. I realized that most of my favorite shows emphasized that same kata. My mind was trained to automatically copy it when I was around men. I had to retrain my mind by finding better patterns to imitate, and for a time I also had to avoid watching katas of seduction on television.

As Sarah focuses on katas to train her mind for combat, I focus on scripture, prayer and people who live out godly examples to train my mind to imitate God. (Ephesians 5:1) I have to practice things like kindness, forgiveness, humility and purity in my mind before I can live it out in my body. (Romans 8:5) Watching Sarah, I have to ask myself: where do I still need to train my mind to put on the newness that is in Christ so I will move according to His example when challenged by life? How effective are my life katas?

© 2013, Diane Mowery

I am grateful to Diane Mowery for sharing her wonderfully inspiring story. -- bws

About Diane Mowery
                Diane graduated from the University of Wyoming where she majored in secondary education. She taught junior and senior high school science, and then taught all subjects to her own homeschooled children. In addition to taking care of a large family, Diane facilitates a writers’ group. Her home in the Texas Panhandle is shared with family and a menagerie of animals, including wild birds that have learned to outsmart her cats.